Oakland Looks to Restart Its Faltered Parklet Program

Bikes and seating share space at the parklet on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Photos: Melanie Curry

The success of PARK(ing) Day got a lot of communities excited about the possibilities of reusing street space for something other than car storage. In cities like San Francisco and Oakland, many merchants were attracted to the idea of giving up a couple of parking spots in order to provide a nice place to gather and increase the visibility of their business.

In late 2011, Oakland’s planning department started a pilot program to help businesses and community members create parklets. Seven interested parties applied for permits, but over three years later, a grand total of just two parklets have been built.

The story of those unbuilt parklets can be a lesson in how a simple idea can become overly complex when too many stakeholders and government entities are involved. Or maybe a parklet is just not as cheap and easy to build as it looks at first.

In front of Farley’s East on Grand Avenue, a wooden platform holds tables, chairs, and hanging bike racks. It’s frequently full of people hanging out, drinking coffee, and working on laptops. Instead of two cars, it’s a vibrant urban place — a pleasant, inviting spot for people to relax.

Oakland’s other parklet sits on 40th Street between Telegraph and Broadway, fronting several popular businesses. Mounted on the parklet is a plaque that lists its sponsors and contributors, including several businesses across the street.

But Oakland’s webpage on parklets only instructs prospective parklet builders to “stay tuned for announcements” because the application process is closed. A map shows the two completed parklets, plus two others “coming soon” and another labeled “final permit not yet approved.” The map was last updated in October of 2012.

Neighbors and merchants were excited for a planned but unbuilt parklet on Lakeshore Avenue in front of Arizmendi Bakery. “A whole group of neighbors worked really hard for it,” said Pamela Drake of the Lakeshore Avenue Business Improvement District. Money had even been secured for the permit fees, but a design problem arose.

The parklet on Grand Avenue.

One of the parking spaces the parklet would occupy was reserved for handicapped placard holders, which had ramp requirements that made it impossible to move elsewhere, according to Laura Kaminsky, the planner in charge of Oakland’s parklet program.

“We were willing to give up a parking space,” said Drake, “but the city wouldn’t move it to the other side of the street.”

Solutions were offered, including moving the parklet or dividing it in two, but they were shot down for various reasons, including the parklet being too small, and losing Chipotle as a sponsor. Community interest and energy waned as time went on.

“It wasn’t the city’s fault,” said Drake. “They tried to help, but there were just too many other things going on.”

A different but equally fatal set of problems plagued the other planned parklet in front of the Actual Cafe at Alcatraz and San Pablo Avenues.

“We applied for the permit and were ready to begin construction,” said Sal Bednarz, the cafe’s owner. “But by the time we got the permit we’d started construction on our new restaurant next door,” so they put off working on the parklet, he said. In the meantime, the East Bay Municipal Utility District tore up the pavement along Alcatraz and installed a fire hydrant where the parklet was planned in the process. “We had no idea they were about to do this, and the city didn’t tell us when we got the permit,” said Bednarz.

Each proposed solution had its own complications. The cafe owners didn’t want to move it up the street along Alcatraz, as that would put it farther from their entrance. “And we’d have to remove a few parking spaces,” said Bednarz. Then they thought of a better idea: move it around the corner to San Pablo. There it would be even more visible, as San Pablo is a busier street. It would be usable by neighboring businesses on San Pablo, and the pavement is flatter, which makes construction simpler.

But San Pablo is also State Highway 123, which means it’s under the control of Caltrans. “Caltrans’ requirements are outscale for a parklet,” said Bednarz. Those include an additional encroachment permit from Caltrans, a new set of engineering drawings done to Caltrans specifications, and a Caltrans-approved contractor to build the parklet instead of doing it themselves. All of which would drive up the cost of construction quite a bit — “One thousand percent is a conservative estimate,” said Bednarz.

“The problem I have is that I am unable to identify the person at Caltrans who can get creative and help us create a pilot project. I’ve spoken to several people who’ve been somewhat helpful and interested, but they don’t know how to make this happen,” he said.

For now, there is no long-desired parklet there, and its future is up in the air. “I would either like to get permission for the parklet and actually put it in, or decide that we’re not going to be able to do it and get my permit fees back from Oakland, since the city screwed up by not telling us about EBMUD,”  said Bednarz.

The 40th Street parklet. (Note: The rustic log bench is not blocking the path of pedestrians on the sidewalk.)

A third parklet, in front of several galleries along 25th Street in the heart of the Art Murmur district, may truly be “coming soon.”

“As of now we are waiting on the owners to sign the documents and we should have a permit within the month,” said Drew Mickel, vice president of development at Reynolds and Brown, the owner of the building. “We hope to begin construction with six weeks.”

Cost was a factor in the delay on this parklet, said Mickel. “It was three times more expensive than we thought it would be, due to code requirements, the angles of the street and platform requiring some engineering, and also the design of the overall structure.”

Los Angeles’ People Street program, which provides “kits” of basic drawings and guidelines to ease the permit process, estimates the average cost of constructing a parklet to be between $40,000 and $80,000, not including design and required maintenance.

Although Mickel is excited about the possibilities of livening up the street, the tenants have not always been so sure. “All of them were interested at first, but several are struggling with the idea of giving up a parking spot,” he said.

As for Oakland’s parklet program, “stay tuned” indeed. Kaminsky, who manages the program, has been busy on an unusual number of other projects, and hopes to turn her attention to a second application round for the pilot program over the summer. “The intention was to create a more permanent program off the pilot,” she said. “But it’s difficult to do that when we don’t have results to present to council to say whether it’s working well. We’ve had lots of interest in the meanwhile so we’re thinking of extending the pilot program.”

Other cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have been learning, too, and their programs can be used as models. “We know that one thing we need is to create time limits within which a parklet has to be built,” said Kaminsky, “and as part of the application you have to show that you have funds available. A lot of people don’t realize how expensive it can be and how long it takes.”

  • Prinzrob

    Any news about the parklet in front of Actual Cafe/Victory Burger on Alcatraz in North Oakland? That one was built and installed in an abandoned bus stop as part of the pilot program, but then was stolen by people who somehow believed it was just discarded lumber.

  • Chris J.

    “The problem I have is that I am unable to identify the person at Caltrans who can get creative and help us create a pilot project. I’ve spoken to several people who’ve been somewhat helpful and interested, but they don’t know how to make this happen,” he said.

    Certainly the Director’s office should be able to answer this question. Here is Caltrans’s org chart. The issue then isn’t being able to identify the person (the Director is such a person), but getting a response from them as to who lower down the chain also has authority.

  • Matt Chambers

    Take off the SF goggles and see Oakland as its own place. I don’t know if the parklet program “faltered”. Parklets simply are not as desired in Oakland as in SF because we have 6 more square miles of space with about *half* the population. Our businesses have enough space under their own roofs to not require the trade off of losing parking to gain more people space. We’re not the same city and we don’t have the same needs.

  • Wanderer

    Given that Oakland is less dense than San Francisco, it should be easier, not more difficult, to create parklets. Also, it’s sunny more of the time in Oakland, another reason that Oakland should actually be a better place for parklets. This article doesn’t say nobody wants to do parklets in Oakland, it says that people have tried and run into all kinds of obstacles. Somehow similar obstacles have been overcome in San Francisco. And success breeds success, if there were more parklets in Oakland, more people would want to create them.

  • Peter J.

    Read the article 🙂

  • Matt Chambers

    Wandere, your logic is false. Less dense takes no account for finances, and demand. Parklets are a solution for cities like NYC and SF where public space is seriously lacking and where private space is at a severe premium. Parklets in Oakland are a solution looking for a problem.The obstacles mentioned still apply in NYC and SF -applicants have just put in more effort to create these spaces because they have the funds, the cities have the funds, and both parties have the extreme need to create these spaces. Oakland does not have the resources or, more importantly, the demand to increase people space in public right of ways.

    Also, where are the dollar for dollar and hours for hours comparisons for parklet development in LA v Oak, SF v Oak, and so on??? You are basing your opinion on nothing concrete.

  • You are basing your opinion on nothing concrete.

    Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, pot.

  • Matt Chambers

    Care to explain? Oakland only had 7 parklet applications when the program initiated -how many applications were there in SF or NYC during the initial year?

  • murphstahoe

    If there is so much space and so few people, what’s the problem with removing parking?

  • Matt Chambers
  • Matt Chambers

    If there’s so much space and so few people, then what’s the point of creating parklets?

  • At least you seem clear on why nobody takes you seriously. So there’s that.

  • Matt Chambers

    Nobody takes me seriously? Says “MrEricSir”.

    What’s your metric on that one?

  • Jame

    Parklets are typically popular with a specific demographic. I think they are a good idea, and there are parts of town that are well suited for a parklet. But there are places where they are less important, since there is public space that could be better allocated. For example, Piedmont Ave probably won’t get a parklet, since there is the Key Route plaza that could be redesigned and serve that function. Lakeshore/Grand corridor is an decent spot for a parklet and Monkey Forest Road got the ball rolling with their own “parklet” in their parking lot.

    The city program is a good idea, but there are a lot of other DIY solutions that Oaklanders are finding. And there are way too many roadblocks. It might be better to roll this program up into the overall facade improvement one.

  • Matt Chambers

    I’m completely with you but, “there are way too many roadblocks”. This article did not compare contrast specific issues facing parklet implementation. How much does it cost and how long does it take to get a parklet in SF, or LA v Oakland? Like San Pablo Ave, Van Ness Ave is Caltrans land -are there parklets on Van Ness Ave, and if so then how were they implemented… how long did it take to get approval… and how much did it cost everyone involved?

  • Christopher Kidd

    …says the man who hated the Latham Square pilot project.

  • Stew javy

    you aint gonna hit em tho!

  • Stew javy

    buncha white people doing a buncha white people things…SF and LA have no soul and now ya’ll tryin to make tha Town just like them…ever ask any real locals if they want you here? White people always trying to come take the colored mans land…ol’ third string colonists.

  • lasertag

    Yea sideshows are much better. hahaha

  • Chris

    It’s not about having space, it’s about having outdoor space. Some people just like sitting outside drinking their coffee.

    What parklets also does is that creates this street life vibrancy. By everyone sitting inside, it’s not the same.

  • Re: “SF goggles”
    Melanie lives in the East Bay.

  • Jame

    The 40th street parklet and the Farley’s one were also funded using Kickstarter. I think those each cost about $15k if I recall from the Kickstarter projects (and lots of volunteer build time). Growth in parklets should be pretty organic, but it looks pretty clear that the city doesn’t make it particularly easy to make it work due to lack of coordination between departments. If I were a business owner I might be a little wary after hearing about what happened with the other parklets. It should probably be a bit more targeted to make it work. I.e. the city elects a few corridors to be parklet ready. And does a case study.

  • Prinzrob

    “Our businesses have enough space under their own roofs to not require the trade off of losing parking to gain more people space.”

    Have you surveyed business owners about this, because there are already tons of restaurants, cafes, groceries, and other stores in Oakland that have sidewalk cafes or displays, sometimes with dubious legality? Parklets are basically a way of allowing this existing usage while not blocking already constrained sidewalk space.

    If the red tape and permitting expense issues were dealt with, I find it hard to believe that most smart business owners would turn their nose up at the opportunity to expand their retail space at low cost while also creating a more welcoming environment for potential customers.

  • Prinzrob

    Oops, my bad. Reading comprehension fail…

  • bluejay

    I think this misses the point. Many businesses in Oakland (though certainly not all) do want parklets, but there is no means by which they can build them. Oakland is not accepting applications for new parklets and has no schedule for when new applications will be accepted.

    If the City allowed parklets and no one wanted to build them that would be one thing, but it’s hard to assess demand for a non-existent program.

  • Matt Chambers

    Yes, the parklet program solicited businesses and only seven wanted a parklet and only two followed through with implementation. Of the five that did not get implemented those quoted above don’t seem to be blaming the city. Actual Cafe chose to expand next door instead of the parklet. Both processes are complex, but they expanded next door because they could. Valencia street businesses would expand next door, but there’s already a tapas/cafe/burrito/vintage furniture store in the way.

  • Matt Chambers

    She could live in Buffalo, but she wrote a very from 35,000FT perspective story that lacked any local nuance. Parklets are popular in SF and LA, so they should be in Oakland -no.

  • Matt Chambers

    Almost every establishment I can think of in Oakland has it’s own outdoor space or is adjacent to some sort of outdoor space. So it is about having space -we have it and parklets aren’t popular here because we don’t need them.

  • Matt Chambers

    Ah, I disagreed with your desired design of the plaza so I hated it? Not exactly Chris. You will still be getting an expanded plaza… next to another plaza… however people will be able to use Telegraph as the major East Bay thoroughfare that it is.

  • Matt Chambers

    So are you saying what non-white people do is limited to illegal sideshows? Nice.

  • kevin

    “Almost every establishment I can think of in Oakland has it’s own outdoor space”

    Think harder. Some businesses in SF have outdoor space AND a parklet. THE HORROR. If parklets really are unpopular, they won’t last, so what are you worried about? Obvious unstated answer: they’ll have to steal my right to store my private vehicle on public property out of my cold, dead hands!

  • dto510

    Thirty businesses have contacted the city asking for parklet applications in the last year.

  • dto510

    Are you joking? Outdoor space is at a major premium in Oakland. Parklets seem to be popular with users and with businesses – just not with our auto-oriented City bureaucracy.

  • Matt Chambers

    Thank you for providing what the article did not. Can you provide the list?

  • Matt Chambers

    I’m not kidding. Which businesses are lacking access to outdoor space?

    Just because the city wants the streets to be multimodal does not make them auto-oriented.

  • dto510

    Latching on to a single parking space to the detriment of pedestrian space is certainly auto-oriented. There are very few businesses with access to outdoor space in Oakland. The few bars with patios etc are packed.

  • dto510

    Yeah the article didn’t contact WOBO. I don’t have the list but we have been fielding a lot of complaints that the City won’t even give them an application. The city isn’t allowing businesses to ask for a parklet – that is not evidence that nobody wants one.

  • Matt Chambers

    So you can’t qualify your statement?

  • Matt Chambers

    Do you have a list of people/businesses who have complained?

  • dto510

    Not me personally. If the author of this article had contacted us, we would have found the right person to provide that information.

  • dto510

    Huh? You are downtown, you know how few places have outdoor space and how popular they are. A friend of mine is opening a bar and he tried desperately to find somewhere with outdoor access, but failed (though they are going to eat into the indoor space to make a tiny patio).

  • Prinzrob

    Actual Cafe did build their parklet but it was stolen before it could be installed permanently. Their use of the space next door is a second restaurant, not a expansion of their existing cafe. In the meantime the space where their parklet was to go had a fire hydrant installed, which is why they weren’t able to complete the installation.

    The space issues at their cafe and restaurant location still exist, as most of their seating at the burger joint is outside on the sidewalk, which constrains the pedestrian space and precludes installing any bike parking. I’m sure if they had the option to they would still jump at the chance of implementing the parklet, regardless of their expansion indoors.

    Anytime a business resorts to sidewalk seating or retail displays, that is an opportunity for a parklet. I see this a lot in Oakland.

  • Matt Chambers

    Yes, I’m downtown every single day. However, it’s your statement to qualify.

  • Matt Chambers

    How does Actual Cafe’s failed parklet experience reflect on any factors the city can influence?

    The needs of a growing business should not be considered in a vacuum. There are lots of competing forces for public space in Oakland. Parklets as extended seating for a specific business is privatization of public space.

  • Wanderer

    Among all the bars in Downtown Oakland (south of Grand) , only Make Westing and Tribune Tavern have outdoor space. There are places where this is better, e.g. around the Lake (Lake Chalet, Portal) and Northgate. But there’s none on Piedmont, none on College. I think it’s hardly been demonstrated that there’s no demand for outdoor eating/drinking space in Oakland. I am by no means a government-basher, but I have to wonder if the poor response to the City’s call was because many businesses knew they’d be in for a terrible time.

  • Chris

    You’re kidding me right? Do you mean sidewalk space? It’s not the same.

    I live across from that restaurant on Grand Ave. and the nearest space is 50-100 ft away. How are they going to attract customers? Customers don’t eat 50-100 ft away from the restaurant. Some restaurants offer free Wi-Fi outdoor and customers go in and out of the restaurant for restroom breaks, more coffee, etc. How does 50-100 ft away outdoor space going to provide that kind of service.

    You don’t speak for me. I am a resident of Oakland and I know a few that want parklets.

  • Prinzrob

    Re: “Actual Cafe chose to expand next door instead of the parklet.”
    I was trying to express that Actual Cafe’s indoor expansion did not take away from their desire to install the parklet, and that without it there is still an unmet need for seating space and for pedestrian accommodation on the sidewalk. In fact, due to the indoor expansion the parklet is needed now more than even before due to the increased patronage.

    “Parklets as extended seating for a specific business is privatization of public space.”
    Wait, so a parklet that anyone can use is privatization, but a parking space that only people with cars can take advantage of is preferable? I don’t understand the logic.

    Beyond that, businesses in Oakland are already using public sidewalk space for seating, displays, signage, etc. Surely a formal, official process for allowing this usage without degrading pedestrian accommodation is preferable to the ad hoc status quo.

  • Dan

    Typo, San Pablo Ave is Hwy 123 (not 23)

  • Matt Chambers

    In the well publicized initial phase only 7 businesses applied and 2 succeed at constructing a parklets.

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